Competitive innovation: Formula 1

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F1 is unique within sport. Whilst in any other category the focus is exclusively on the athlete, Formula 1’s focal point is shared between its drivers and its cars. It is a sport with more moving pieces than any other, both literally and figuratively. Driver’s must keep fit and consistently meet the high standards of their teams, or face being dropped. Pit Crews must dedicate hours to shaving precious milliseconds off of a stop. Team principles must provide steady leadership and inspire greatness or lose. It is the epitome of a team sport. No single element of a racing team can claim to be more important than another, they all share the responsibility of both their wins and losses. Only teams which can find a way to unite these different factors to work seamlessly together stand a chance of winning.

Having said that, it is also undoubtedly true to say that engineering and car design take centre stage in this battle. Year after year, teams adjust and redesign their vehicles, looking to find the perfect balance of grip, downforce, power and drag which will speed them to victory. They are in a constant state of evolution, with teams in an endless pursuit of the best design. Up until the final days before a race, drivers and engineers continue to work in tandem to iron out any and all imperfections. This aspect of Formula 1 was, for the longest time, both its greatest asset as well as its greatest detriment.

Before 2020, teams were able to inject unregulated amounts of money into their car’s development, and as a direct result, the car industry as a whole saw some of it’s most creative engineering. Despite the FIA’s best intentions though, inevitably the biggest companies were able to make the greatest improvements; the most successful team in the sport’s history is Ferrari, with 238 Grand Prix victories, followed by McLaren, another big name, coming in second.¬†

Ironically for a sport which prides itself on outside-of-the-box thinking, it is also one of the most restricted activities today. All cars must weigh above at least 500 kilograms, testing must be limited to 6 days, each team can only bring so much fuel… From 1994, Formula 1 started to introduce more prescriptions and regulations to limit the development gap between teams to make things more competitive, a trend which has continued. While in 1983, the regulations only filled 11 pages, by 2010, they took up 67.

These features of Formula 1 have become ingrained into its DNA, and for the longest time, although smaller teams were at a disadvantage, the intense competition in F1 was, and still is, a catalyst for inventive change.

Look no further back than 2016, when Williams Racing, a recent frequenter of the lower standings, introduced its slatted cooling outlets around the cockpit. By venting the hot air in an area which would not affect the car’s aerodynamics, it is no surprise that the system became popular, with Mercedes adopting the technology for the following year.¬†Similarly, Mercedes discovered that their adjusted wishbone position had also been made by Red Bull’s 2nd, smaller team, Torro Rosso.

Despite the leaps made in terms of engineering though, Formula 1 is, like anything competitive, a vicious circle for smaller teams. The biggest teams get the best drivers. The best drivers bring in big sponsors. Big sponsors pay for better research and development. Better cars mean more wins. More wins mean more sponsorship, and so on. This makes the playing field extremely uneven. And yet competitiveness begets competitiveness. Despite that it is rare, there is always an exciting moment when the status quo is disrupted – when Lando Norris came 3rd in the Styrian Grand Prix, or when Nico Hulkenberg slipped into second at Hockenheim for Renault. What keeps these smaller teams from becoming irrelevant is Formula 1’s occasional unexpectedness. As Murray Walker once said, “Anything can happen in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does.”

These are some of Formula One’s greatest innovations, only made possible by the sport’s addiction to competition.

The Bosch Carburettor

During the 1950s, Bosch made a breakthrough with its new system of gasoline injection, also known as the Carburettor. The Mercedes Benz W196 would have been one of the first to use the system in motor-sports, as they only became mainstream by the 1980s, however, Sterling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio were able to win 9 of the 12 races the car was signed up for. Interestingly, this development in racing helped to further develop the same processes which would later be used in road cars.

4 Wheel Drive

The Furgeson P99-Climax was built as the world’s first four-wheel-drive racing car, but unfortunately, despite its unique technology, it was never able to win any races. Still, Sterling Moss nominated it as his favourite racing car from his career in a 1997 interview with Motor Sport Magazine.

The Ground Effect

Designed partially by the head of Lotus, Colin Chapman, the Lotus 79 was the first race car to properly employ what is known as the ground effect: a series of aerodynamic effects to enhance the downforce on a car. The Lotus 79 forced air into pods on the side of the car, allowing for previously-impossible cornering speeds. Many concerns were raised though, as the development meant that drivers could be slingshot off of a corner to crash. By 1983, the tech was banned in F1, having only been implemented for 6 years.

Active Suspension

William Racing was responsible for one of the greatest advancements in racing history, using a hydraulic system to adjust the suspension based on the situation of each of the tires. Lotus had been pioneering the way with their car, the Lotus 88, but that was controversially banned because of its skirts which regulated the ground effect for the car. In 1987, Lotus’ system was ready for use, but Williams’ version was far superior as it was lighter and less power-draining. By the 1990s, Williams had put so much time and effort into the car that it was far and away the fastest on the grid. Still concerned by the vast speeds it allowed drivers to use around corners, the FIA banned Active Suspension in 1994. For those who doubted the FIA’s decision, the accident Alessandro Zandarni suffered at the Belgian Grand Prix left no-one in doubt of the system’s dangerous side. Fortunately, Zandarni was not killed after his high-speed crash off of a corner, but the ban had already been decided.

F1 is about racing. But it is also about fine engineering. It is a multi-faceted sport which continues to grow, requiring the highest level of dedication and the strongest will to win. While regulations are relatively tight and technology becomes more difficult to improve, F1 teams have always had to face adversity in the face of innovation, and they will not be stopping anytime soon.


Photos credited to Motor Sport Magazine, Formula 1, Thompson/Getty Images, Wikipedia and Red Bull